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Why people develop persistent maladaptive beliefs

Posted Oct 22 2008 6:27pm

Continuing the thread of beliefs and health, I will now examine why people develop maladaptive beliefs systems and why they’re so difficult to change.

A belief is a type of thought (cognition, attitude, assumption, theory) that emerges as one’s mind converts patterns of electro-chemical brain activity into internal dialogue (“self-talk”), images in the “mind’s eye,” emotions, and behavioral reactions. Since this occurs automatically and unconsciously, we are typically unaware of these thoughts and feelings as they happen.

How do these beliefs develop and persist? The kind of beliefs I’ve been discussing—attributions, appraisals and irrational beliefs—are created by our experiences and cultural teachings. These belief systems (interrelated set of beliefs) function as mental/perceptual “filters” through which we view the world, the future and ourselves, which ultimately affects the state of our physical, psychological and spiritual health.

There are many reasons why humans develop and maintain maladaptive beliefs, and the negative emotions and behaviors accompanying them. They include the following (adapted from AlbertEllis ’ book, “Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy” pp. 381-414):

  • We have a prolonged period of childhood during which time we are—relative to healthy adults—vulnerable, weak, ignorant, unintelligent, incompetent, highly impressionable, and over-emotional creatures. This is poor training ground and preparation for the kind of thinking, emoting, and acting we will have to do to live sanely and healthily as adults.
  • We often have difficulty unlearning something, even as we learn new things that contradict it. So, once certain beliefs are acquired, it often requires constant work and practice to change them. In other words, beliefs become habitual.
  • Inertia is the tendency of an object at rest to remain at rest, and of an object in motion to remain in motion. Changing an object’s motion by starting it or stopping it, therefore, requires extra energy. The same is true for people’s tendency to think, feel and act in ways we’re accustomed. It takes extra effort to modify the thoughts, emotions and behaviors familiar to us. Unfortunately, we tend to have trouble with sustained effort (as discussed below), so once a strong beliefs are in place, our inertia makes them resistant to change.
  • People tend to be short-sighted and want their desires satisfied immediately (“short-term hedonism”), even when they would be better off postponing satisfaction or living without. Examples of things momentarily desirable, but undesirable or harmful in the long run, include consumption of alcohol, drugs and too much food. This is one reason why we find it so easy to believe we need what we want when we want it, without consideration of the long-term consequences.
  • People have a tendency to be over-suggestible, which makes us prone to adopting the beliefs of our families our cultures, rather than rejecting conformity in favor of independent critical thinking.
  • Humans tend to be overly vigilant, cautious and misfocused, which means, for example, that we focus too intently on certain things we wrongly believe pose a threat, where in fact we’d be better off concentrating on other things that pose a more serious threat to our well-being.
  • Extremism is a human tendency that makes it very easy for us to accept radical beliefs, rather than taking a middle-ground view.
  • People are prone to wishful thinking, which makes it very easy for us to have self-deceiving beliefs that minimize problems and that enable us to foolishly justify inaction (e.g., “No need to bother … everything will work out on its own”).
  • Humans have (a) trouble sustaining their focus effectively on what’s most important, (b) difficulty organizing many diverse elements of one’s existence into integrated wholes, and (c) problem engaging in disciplined & sustained effort, especially when frustrated. Belief change, however, requires competence and will in all these areas.
  • Our culture reinforces beliefs that over-emphasize guilt and blam e, and make us prone to envy and jealousy.
  • We have a tendency to over-generalize, which means we apply our beliefs about particular people or things to other people and things believe are similar, but that are, in fact, really quite different. When combined with “ people appraisal,” this tendency is the foundation of racial, ethnic, gender and religious prejudice.
  • It is easy for humans to exist with disturbed beliefs and the maladaptive emotions and behaviors associated with them.

And here are some reasons why people have trouble refuting invalid beliefs:

  • We tend to have a form of “ selective attention ” that makes us focus on a specific aspect of an experience while ignoring other aspects, as well as “ hindsight bias ” makes us recall only certain things from memory. The problem is that the things we focus on and remember tend to support our preconceived beliefs (assumptions/theories), while ignoring contradictory evidence. Belief change, however, requires just the opposite, i.e., examining situations objectively, through critical thinking, by seeking out evidence that refutes our assumptions and hypotheses.
  • We also tend to be overconfident in the accuracy of our attributions and appraisals. So, rather than fully investigating contradictory evidence, we develop and maintain beliefs based on judgments supported by insufficient and misleading information.

In my next post, I will answer the questions: Why are certain belief systems so emotional? and What types of beliefs are associated with good health?

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